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01/27/2014

Is Embedded Android Ready for Prime Time?

Android for embedded systems is a relatively new concept. Beyond smart phones and tablets, few products on the market today run embedded Android. However, Android is poised to become a significant player in the embedded systems market.

Android is a subset of the Linux Embedded Operating System, and many engineers and developers have become accustomed to Linux in recent years. They trust the Linux kernel because it has no licensing fees, the source code is accessible, and it has a large community for developer support.

The lack of licensing fees is an attractive aspect of all Linux embedded services, however, many companies, including Google, have opted for a public license that is less burdensome, without responsibilities of contributing back to the open source community. VDC believes that this is a strong point in favor of Android. Engineers’ desire to avoid commercial licenses such as Apache and BSD is one of the main reasons why 27% of OEM embedded device engineers said their organizations were currently developing Android products (2013 VDC Research Survey).

VDC estimates that Android embedded devices will experience growth in annual unit shipments of 26% per year from 2012 through 2015. In order to accommodate this rapid growth, Android needs to capitalize on its application framework where it has plenty of talented developers. But if Android is to successfully break away from Google, it must have even stronger support from the developer community.

Through the evolution of embedded processor technologies, OEMs will continue to switch to the Android embedded OS because of its support for graphical user interfaces, integrated connectivity, and royalty-free licensing. However, there are concerns about the security of Android in embedded devices, given the proliferation of Android malware in the mobile phone market. Among the ways Android security concerns are being addressed are Security-Enhanced (SE) Android, which isolates applications and restricts their permissions, as well as the use of OS virtualization to run Android alongside another more secure OS on the same device.

For Android to flourish in the embedded market, it has the daunting task of competing with the historic leaders: Microsoft and Linux. Currently, Microsoft systems dominate embedded device classes. In 2011, VDC estimated that Microsoft ranked number 1 in commercial embedded OS market share; competing against Wind River, Mentor Graphics, MontaVista Software, QNX Software Systems, and now Android OS.

Microsoft has been a leader in the embedded devices and systems market for over 10 years. However, many OEMs are now looking beyond the Microsoft brand, and are beginning to recognize the benefits of Android as an embedded OS: open-source platforms, evolving technology base, source code access, and royalty free business model. Linux license restrictions have further sparked a transition to embedded Android which offers more public licenses. Throughout many embedded device classes (smart phones & tablets, medical devices, connected car systems, and military situational awareness systems), Android should see major growth in market share. The stability of the Android’s infrastructure and the expertise within its ecosystem will enable it to successfully penetrate the embedded systems market. Embedded Android is about to enter prime time.

by Conor Peal, Research Intern, M2M & Embedded Technology

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